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The winning ingredient missing from the Lakers’ championship recipe

Without an athletic wing to slot between LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers might be unable to make the most of their superstar duo.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Detroit Pistons Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

In LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers not only have two superstars, but they have two of the more dominant, versatile, and big forwards in the NBA.

LeBron, though typically a small forward, often scales up to the power forward in closing lineups and played roughly half of his minutes last year at the center spot amid a season full of injuries and inconsistent big man play from the rest of the team. Davis, meanwhile, can play either the 4 or 5 with great aplomb, switching positions based on matchups or time and score situations that influence where he’s needed most.

In building their team this way, with their best players primarily roaming the frontcourt for most of their minutes, the Lakers are one of the most unique teams in the league, and, from my vantage point, certainly the most unique star duo in the entire NBA. They defy the classic big/small or wing/wing superstar pairing in favor of a hybrid and versatile big/big model, and there’s really no other team in the NBA who can claim to have a pairing quite like this.

On a team built around such high-level frontcourt malleability, then, it feels counterintuitive to say that one of the more important positions to fill on a team with these two specific players is at the forward spot, but it’s absolutely as true for these Lakers as it was for last year’s. Even though LeBron and AD are both natural forwards, the lineups that function best typically have one more forward (type) of player to slot between them, allowing both to optimize their own versatility and create matchup issues for their opponents by either sliding up or down a position where they can leverage their unique combination of skill, size, and athleticism.

One only needs to go back to the 2020 title-winning team to see how important Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma, and Danny Green were as hybrid forwards and wings who helped their superstar teammates in these exact ways. Add in strong defensive guards and just enough shot-making, and you had the ingredients to hold up the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season.

Fast-forward to this season, though, and a quick examination of the roster shows this team lacks that crucial forward and/or wing who has shown to best complement Davis and James. This matters for many reasons — to balance the roster, to be able to build more sustainable lineups when either Bron or AD sit, etc — but mostly because the absence of this specific archetype of player means all the things they would typically be responsible for shift to other players on the roster. Especially on defense.

And, on this Lakers team, that means either passing this burden back onto LeBron and AD for longer stretches or asking the guard heavy roster to play bigger than they are. Neither of these solutions are ideal.

On the latter point, while the Lakers have better defensive guards available this season than last, it’s a major ask for any of them to guard up as often as this Lakers roster projects that they’ll need to. Even for Patrick Beverley — regardless of how much he’ll tell you about his ability to do so — being a full-time wing defender against some of the game’s best (and most physical players) isn’t a solution I’m all that thrilled about relying on for a full season.

Don’t get me wrong, Beverley will compete hard and will win his share of battles against even the top wings in the league, but the physical toll of it being his primary defensive role is bound to run up against his long history of getting banged up and, ultimately, missing games.

And after Pat Bev, the guard options are only more worrisome. Do you think Kendrick Nunn will hold up and win enough of these physical battles? Can Dennis Schröder?

Austin Reaves has more size than either of them and got stronger this offseason, but I don’t believe he’s at the point where he can be relied on to guard these players as the primary option. Russ is probably the next best suited guard to scale up and, with a (seemingly) fresh attitude and encouragement from Darvin Ham, he might even be eager to give it a try. But his defensive habits have been poor for years and he’ll need to prove he’s a trustworthy defender again before I’ll believe it’s going to happen.

Which brings me back to LeBron and AD.

In the Lakers’ championship season, both players were two-way monsters whose defensive focus and intensity were key drivers to the team’s success on that side of the ball. Of course, they were supported mightily by Green, Kuzma, Morris, and even Alex Caruso to take on their opponents’ top wing assignments. Sure, during big moments or critical matchups, Bron and AD would take on those duties for extended stretches or full games as the primary defenders (i.e. vs. Jimmy Butler in the Finals or in those marquee matchups vs. Giannis and the Bucks). But, for the most part, both players were able to take on lesser individual matchups in order to affect the game via more help oriented roles within the team’s defensive structure.

I have a hard time believing that can be the case this season, particularly if the Lakers are going to be as good on defense as their head coach wants them to be. In Friday’s post-practice media availability, Darvin Ham said that the primary starting group to this stage in training camp has been Russ, Nunn, LeBron, AD, and Damian Jones.

Imagine that group against the Clippers, Pelicans, or Celtics.

Who defends Kawhi and George, Zion and Ingram, or Tatum and Brown? In a matchup with the Nets, who defends KD and Simmons?

Initially, it looks like those duties will (in most cases) fall onto the shoulders of LeBron and AD. Now, maybe this is exactly how it should be. After all, these are the Lakers’ best defenders (along with Beverley) and asking them to carry this load is part of leading by example. And, if the Lakers are going to do anything in the postseason, both are going to have to be high-level defenders in the most difficult matchups.

But, LeBron is in his 20th season and AD is still one of the elite help defenders in the NBA. I can imagine many scenarios where these types of asks are either not fair or not ideal within the context of the full team concept defensively. Yet, the roster limitations may just force them into these positions more than ever.

Which brings to focus more questions about minutes and managing both stars in a way that promotes them being their best when their best is needed.

On media day, in response to a question about both LeBron and AD’s minutes, Ham said, “I don’t need Bron or AD playing playoff minutes in October, November, December. Once we establish our rotation, looking for different ways to minimize the load on their bodies, whenever possible.”

This, of course, is the responsible answer and is the ideal way to approach both players — particularly after consecutive seasons of injuries limiting their availability. Ham went even further by adding he would coordinate players’ game and practice schedules in order to promote the health of his stars and the rest of the regiment.

Rob Pelinka, in response to a question about his guards’ potential to defend up a position, was quick to bring up how Juan Toscano-Anderson and Troy Brown Jr. will need to play critical roles on the wing defensively. This, too, is a reasonable response and I’m right there with Rob in recognizing the importance of both guys.

But, if we’re being honest, these steps can only go so far. Of all the players mentioned, only Beverley projects to be a major part of the rotation heading into the season. So many of this team’s best players are guards, so the Lakers may ultimately have to choose between building out lineups with enough size or sufficient talent. Effectively, that might mean choosing to optimize LeBron and AD at the expense of the supporting cast, or the supporting cast at the expense of LeBron and AD’s peak potency.

Unless the roster changes in ways that bring about better balance before the deadline, it looks like LeBron and AD will have to fill in more of those gaps than we’d like them to.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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